The Guardian • Issue #1956

Art in the name of exploitation: Dark Mofo’s Union Flag controversy



This article contains a description and discussion of an event that First Nations peoples may find distressing.

On 20th March, the organisers of the creative arts festival Dark Mofo put out a chilling call to First Nations people on Instagram: “we want your blood.” Once you read the text beneath the picture, they began to specify that they were asking for blood donations to be used for one of the festival’s performance pieces. The idea behind the “artwork” in question entitled “Union Flag” was to drench the British flag in the blood of First Nations people. This immediately drew swathes of criticism from First Nations peoples and was roundly condemned in the arts community and beyond.

Dark Mofo is an annual festival held in Hobart, Tasmania, known for its controversial artworks and performance pieces. It originally started as a nudist run into the freezing waters of the Tasman Sea and has since grown into a full-blown modern art festival. In 2017, performers slaughtered a live cow and covered themselves in its entrails and, in 2013, a light show sent seven people to hospital with seizures.

The controversial Union Flag “artwork” was created by Spanish artist Santiago Sierra and was set to be one of the key works at the festival. It was purportedly meant to symbolise the blood shed by First Nations peoples at the hands of the British settler-colonists. While the symbolic imagery is clear, the intentions behind the festival featuring the “artwork” are not.

It would be easy to get sidetracked and simply dismiss this as another instance of “cancel culture” or “political correctness gone mad,” as right-wing talking heads love to wheel out every time something like this happens, but to do so would be a grave error. The controversy is not only centred around a national conversation about Indigenous history and Australia’s brutal settler-colonialism, but it also reveals the broader forces of capitalistic profiteering.

Let us begin at the micro-level with the artist. Sierra came forward calling the criticism of his piece “superficial and spectacular” and complained that he has been “left without a voice,” even going so far as to say that critics have “built up the indignation to suit their own needs.”

So, let us examine some of the criticisms. Paola Bella, a Wemba-Wemba & Gunditjmara woman wrote in an article for The Conversation that the “Union Flag aimed to literally extract Aboriginal blood as an anthropological and biological specimen. Extracted to be used as paint without the bodies or sovereign voices it belongs to and within.”

In the same article, Bella cited numerous First Nations people including Trawlwoolway and Plengarmairenner Pakana visual artist and dancer, Jam Graham Blair who has called on artists to boycott the festival and Wardandi (Nyoongar) curator Clothilde Bullen who stated “this is why we need far more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts workers and curators in senior leadership and director positions.”

Other First Nations people have spoken out, including rappers Tasman Keith and Briggs saying, “we already gave enough blood.” Noongar writer and academic Cass Lynch wrote in Overland, “Simply stating or depicting that the beginnings of the Australian colony were brutal and bloody for Indigenous people is a passive act.”

She continued by stating:

“The concept on its own isn’t active as an agent of truth-telling, it doesn’t contain an Indigenous voice or testimony, it has no nuance. On its own, it leans into the glorification of the gore and violence of colonisation.”

Trawlwulwuy artist and Aboriginal Heritage Officer Fiona Hamilton also condemned the festival:

“Dark Mofo, and particularly Leigh Carmichael [the festival’s creative director], have made a really grave error of judgement around how this would resonate, particularly with First Nations people, not just in Tasmania but around the world […] I would say Leigh Carmichael needs to resign.”

Nala Mansell from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre tentatively supported Sierra’s work as it was “a great opportunity to raise awareness of the massacres” of Aboriginal people, however she did add “speak to the people of whom they would like to represent would be the main message.” This project has been in the works for over two years with no consultation with any First Nations people.

These are not only entirely accurate criticisms but contain concrete demands.

There have been calls for:

Both artists and festival-goers to boycott the festival

Greater representation and consultation within the arts

More First Nations-led projects; not only as curators but also as performers

The resignation of Carmichael

And the refusal:

To donate any blood towards the artwork

Of the ongoing exploitation and tokenisation of First Nations people

To participate in anything to do with the festival.

Sierra’s claim that the criticisms against his work are “superficial and spectacular” is absolutely laughable. One could be generous and say he’s referring to the criticisms of more mainstream media and not First Nations people, but if that’s the case, then he’s listening to the wrong voices. Despite Carmichael initially doubling down in his support of the project, stating that “self-expression is a fundamental human right,” just because something is done in the name of “art” does not make it exempt from criticism.

David Walsh, who owns the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), the host of Dark Mofo, later admitting his error, said that he “thought it would appeal to the usual leftie demographic. I approved it without much thought (as has become obvious).” This quote speaks directly to the ideological bankruptcy in the mind of the capitalist. Not only is there a flagrant disregard for the consequences it would have on First Nations people but betrays that his vague conception of a “leftie demographic” is simply about putting on whatever he thinks will net him the most profits. This isn’t the first time MONA has been criticised over a similar issue. In 2014, they cancelled an Aboriginal DNA identity testing installation by Swiss artist Christoph Buchel. You’d think they would have learned by now.

On Monday 23rd March, Dark Mofo issued a feeble apology on Instagram that stated, “We’ve heard the community’s response to Santiago Sierra’s Union Flag. In the end the hurt that will be caused by proceeding isn’t worth it. We made a mistake, and take full responsibility. The project will be cancelled.” One is left wondering if the “hurt that will be caused” they care about is their own bottom line in the face of mounting calls for a boycott of the festival.

So how can these criticisms be understood? It is not simply a question of aesthetic outrage but is demonstrative of a broader system that goes well beyond the art world.

Walsh made his fortune from professional gambling and business ventures. As a multi-millionaire he had a run-in with the Australian Tax Office over $41 million taxes he owed from his gambling profits in 2012, which was resolved in a confidential settlement with the Tax Commissioner. He claims that “the dispute was now entirely resolved.”

The Union Flag “artwork” is yet another blatant display of a wealthy businessman profiteering from the suffering of First Nations people. The pursuit of profits is blind to any other considerations. As Marx wrote in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:

“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.”

The “vampire-like” nature of capitalism here however is no metaphor. There is nothing that capitalism will not commodify and sap to the very last drop until every resource on earth is entirely consumed. First Nations people the world over know this from brutal first-hand experience. This artwork goes a step further than simply purchasing labour-power, it adopts the guise of being penniless and asks for donations. No remuneration was offered to those giving blood, all the profits of the “artwork” would go to the festival and the artist. They ask for donations without remuneration in the time where there should be reparations. This is yet another egregious, literal example of the “vampire-like” nature of capitalism’s impact on First Nations peoples.

First Nations peoples, domestically and internationally, have been ruthlessly exploited under the reign of capitalism and colonialism for centuries, for what was once abundant lands are being sucked dry. This controversy is not simply a question over the merits of an “artwork.” The question is how to listen to the criticisms of those affected and to act in accordance with them. This is what it means to build genuine class solidarity. Art can and does serve a critical function in society, it can call into question the existing order of society in a way in which words cannot always express. It can, to recontextualise Marx’s quote on religion, be “the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions” But this Union FlagJack piece is not a demonstration of that principle. It is shameless and barefaced profiteering off the historical and on-going suffering of First Nations people.

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